The Power Within

This week I was reminded of a displeasure that comes with many table top games. I had forgotten how much I disliked the idea until it came swimming back into view. For the weekly session with my gaming group I volunteered/tasked to create a quartet of level 3 PCs for a 1-4 session arc in 4e.

No problem, like many people who enjoy the tabletop RPG hobby I too like to sit down and fiddle with options while making characters. It’s even better when I get the opportunity to make a whole party. Having an adventuring group that complements and supports its individual pieces is like the difference between a hand-tailored suit and something off the rack. They both can do the job, but one is clearly superior and better fitting.

ImageThere was one small exception to the whole process, no inherent bonuses. Cool, magic items. Everyone likes magic items, right? I forgot I hate magic items. I had to think for a moment and quickly realized I had not played a 4e game without inherent bonuses in years… about four years. I was quickly reminded why I play without them. It’s not that magic items are stupid; vorpal blades, wands of fireballs, bags of holding, all are awesome and welcome additions. What I dislike is the idea of the rules system created under the assumption adventurers will be completely decked out in magic items. They will have so many magic items that the monsters must be created under the assumption adventurers are lousy with magic items.

In 4th edition rules any PC is assumed to have at level 4, 3 magic items comprising a +1 Weapon/Implement, a +1 Armor, and a +1 Neck item. That means by level 4 all 4e characters should have a +1 to attacks, damage, AC, and NADs (Non-AC-Defenses). So pervasive is the need for magic items that the inherent bonus system in DMG 2 (pg 138), starts giving PCs a catch-up bonus for playing without magic items at level 2.

Rules for creating higher level PCs in 4e is pretty simple. Make PC to appropriate level and outfit. The outfitting consists of this:

– 1 PC Level+1 Magic Item

– 1 PC Level Magic Item

– 1 PC Level-1 Magic Item

– Gold equal to 1 PC Level-1 Magic Item

– Any mundane items

What it means is the level 3 PCs I created are actually ahead of the curve. At level 3 they have already met the level 4 magic item assumptions and have a bonus level 2 magic item. PCs in 4th edition are also able to wield magic items up to three levels higher than their own. Well, level 6 is the start of +2 magic items. Unfortunately, with the inherent bonus system PCs don’t begin receiving a commensurate benefit until level 7.

There’s another problem implicit with magic items in 4e. It adds to the options. Fourth edition is fun and I enjoy it, but the system is absolutely riddled with options. Almost all magic items come with some sort of extra property and power. Apparently bonus to attacks/damage/defenses/critical hit damage isn’t enough, you also need a skill bonus and an extra combat power? Adding another 3-4 powers to a level 3 PC adds half again the options needed to peruse by the player.

Unfortunately 4e is not the only system built in this fashion, 3.X and Pathfinder are also ‘balanced’ for magic items. In some cases the latter are worse off as without magic items non-magic users are quickly outmoded, their talents eclipsed.

Though I hold little plausibility for it given the history, I hope D&D Next will forgo the balancing (and thus necessity for) magic items. I would encourage everyone to find an official or homebrew system of inherent bonuses. For me and many others (especially Game Masters), magic items should be central to the plot in some reason, not necessary equipment to balance the game. Such use steals away the very ‘magic’, the special something about the items.

Here is the beginning of the DMG 2 ‘A Reward-Based Game’ section:

You can remove magic items from the game entirely and replace them with alternative rewards. Doing so results in a game that feels different from traditional D&D and might help you create a particular tone you want for your campaign.

In a campaign with no magic items, magic holds less value. Your players might dislike the variety, but it allows you to create a story-driven campaign – rather than one drive by mechanics – that gives magic a rare and wondrous feel.

My advice is don’t remove magic items. You can still use magic items, they just won’t add their mechanically necessary +1s. A +1 Flaming Sword without its +1 is still a freaking SWORD ON FIRE and if that’s not awesome enough for you, you’re playing the wrong game. It’s an opportunity to make magic items more rare, more special, and necessary only by the dictates of the story.

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